Dad's cancer keeps Williams' head out of NBA clouds

Ken Rosenthal

June 25, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

PORTLAND, Ore. -- The confirmation came Tuesday, the day before the NBA draft.

Walt Williams Sr.

Throat cancer.

"I was like, 'Oh my god,' " Theresa Williams was saying last night. "But then they explained it to me. It didn't sound as bad."

The doctors got most of the tumor. Chemotherapy should take care of the rest. Walt Sr. will survive, but on the biggest night of his son's life, he was lying in a hospital bed.

It was against this backdrop of emotion that Walt Williams realized his NBA dream last night, joining the Sacramento Kings as the seventh pick in the draft.

Theresa was there, sitting with Walt, her sister Laverne and 7-year-old granddaughter Shanae in a makeshift family room behind the massive stage at the Portland Memorial Coliseum.

Watching them on television, who would have known?

Theresa said her stomach "was going very crazy," but that's normal. Walt appeared stunned when NBA commissioner David Stern called his name, but that's normal too.

Rising slowly, the native of Temple Hills, Md., performed the usual first-round routine, kissing his mother, donning a blue Kings cap, striding happily onstage.

The moment, of course, is among the most intoxicating in sports. So many of these kids grow up poor, and their glitzy entrance into the NBA ensures they will never be that way again.

Indeed, as the death of Len Bias so tragically demonstrated, it is a moment when young men often feel invincible. Williams, however, was in a most unusual position.

"I was definitely overwhelmed," he said, "but of course I thought of my father. I wanted him to be here with me. I just tried to go on and do what I had to do."

It wasn't always possible. Walt Sr. entered the hospital last Friday. Williams canceled his final pre-draft interview in Philadelphia on Monday to remain by his side.

Theresa said the doctors had suspected cancer, but the Williams contingent left for Portland unsure of the exact diagnosis. They learned the grim news the eve of the draft.

It is a close family, a strong family. Walt, 22, has a sister Stephanie, 24. She's the one who shamed him into playing organized ball, back when he was in ninth grade.

"He didn't want to join the team because he felt he wouldn't play much," Theresa recalled. "She bothered him so much, he said, 'OK, to shut you up, I'll play.' "

He was 6 feet 2 then. He grew to 6-8 at Maryland, where last season he led the ACC in scoring, exploding in one remarkable stretch for seven straight 30-point games.

A group of 20 friends and relatives attended every game, home and away. Theresa said they were all set to rent a bus for the draft, until they discovered it was in Portland, not New York.

Now Walt is heading for Sacramento. Theresa wanted her baby to stay home, but the Washington Bullets, picking just before the Kings, selected North Carolina State forward Tom Gugliotta.

Financially, the difference is not insignificant, for the sixth pick in last year's draft (Doug Smith) received nearly $600,000 more than the seventh (Luc Longley).

Still, Williams didn't seem particularly upset about leaving home, and he can take comfort in the fact that Longley got a four-year, $6.36 million deal from Minnesota.

"I'm not disappointed at all," Williams said. "I knew the Bullets would do what was best for them. That's all they did. I'm happy to be a Sacramento King."

The Kings are a young team built around three dynamic athletes: guard Mitch Richmond and forwards Lionel Simmons and Wayman Tisdale. Williams is the player they wanted, but they're not sure how he fits.

Sacramento general manager Jerry Reynolds said he will play mostly at shooting guard and small forward, and occasionally fill in at the point, where the Kings are considered weak with Spud Webb.

Williams, however, is so multi-talented, Reynolds also can envision him developing into a power forward "maybe five years from now" -- assuming he adds bulk to his 220-pound frame.

"I've said all along that he might be the most versatile guy in the draft," said Williams' agent, former Maryland star Len Elmore. "He fits in a number of need areas in Sacramento.

"He obviously can bring the ball up, play a point-forward type of game. A guy like Walt can play three positions, force a lot of teams to adjust."

The debate over his position might last his entire career, but for now it's on hold. Last night Williams reflected on his long journey. He seemed humbled by the experience.

"A lot of times I could have gone down the wrong path," he said. "My strong family background led me down the right track."

So there he was, bright lights shining, 7,000 fans screaming, the commissioner of the world's most popular sports league calling his name.

Moments after his selection, he was interviewed on national cable television. It struck him afterward that he never mentioned his father.

"We got off the air so quick," he said, "I didn't have time to say hello."

His world was spinning.

Spinning so fast.

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